Despite an on-and-off homosexual orientation that resulted in his being actively gay in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Harold Brodkey had little cause to suspect that the sudden onset of severe breathing problems in the spring of 1993 had anything to do with AIDS. Brodkey abandoned his gay lifestyle in 1977 and, according to what he reveals about his sexuality, did not slip back into it even momentarily at any time after that. Married to novelist Ellen Schwamm, Brodkey was some sixteen years past his last homosexual encounter when he fell ill and was rushed to the emergency room of a New York City hospital.
To call This Wild Darkness merely a memoir is to misclassify it. Much of the book is a philosophical discourse on various aspects of Brodkey’s life and career. In this book more than in any of his other writing, Brodkey has sketched himself in penetrating detail, presenting a self-analysis based upon his understanding of his own psyche and of the effects his past life had on shaping his psyche when it was in its most formative stages.
A close reading of the book by anyone schooled in psychoanalytical criticism will reveal a great deal about Harold Brodkey that he did not reveal directly in its pages. This, of course, is true of almost any book. In This Wild Darkness, however, it seems particularly relevant because it helps to explain some of the conundrums that have haunted the Brodkey myth and legend as it has grown through the years.
Many of the biographical details with which Brodkey has infused the pages of this book have been told and retold in such earlier Brodkey books as First Love and Other Sorrows (1957), Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988), and The Runaway Soul (1991), his novel that was more than a quarter of a century in the making.
Or is it The Runaway Soul that took so long to write? One can never be entirely sure with Brodkey. The novel for which he received a substantial fortune in publishers’ advances over nearly thirty years was tentatively titled Party of Animals. The sheer bulk of The Runaway Soul, which weighs in at 835 pages, suggests that this was the manuscript on which he worked for so long simply retitled.
Brodkey’s only other novel, Profane Friendship (1994), was written in 1992, when he spent the better part of a year in Italy as a guest of the city of Venice. It focuses on a homosexual love affair and is his most overtly gay publication, although gay elements creep into much of his other writing, including his frequent pieces in The New Yorker, to which he was a regular contributor for more than three decades.
In This Wild Darkness, Brodkey writes sensitive, often touching, always appreciative encomiums to his wife, to whom he was obviously singularly devoted. He reveals her reaction to his illness, her initial concern that she might have contracted AIDS through him, her emotions at being found to be HIV-negative, her absolute devotion to him throughout his illness. This part of the book is most affecting and unquestionably sincere.
Brodkey truly cared about Ellen Schwamm and she about him. They had both sacrificed in order to marry, she particularly in that she had to leave an earlier marriage and all that went with it in order to become Brodkey’s wife. In the portions of this book that concern Ellen, Brodkey deals frequently with the question of survivor guilt, a topic that Walt Odets explores fully in In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS (1996).
Odets likens the plight of HIV-negative people living in areas with high concentrations of gay people who are HIV-positive to that of people who have survived the Holocaust or some other overweening tragedy. Similarly, Brodkey writes of Ellen, “She cried when she learned that she was clear of the virus; she said it depressed her to be so separated from me.”
Later in his narrative, he writes that Ellen said, “Oh, I don’t want to be clear. I want to have it, too.” Such a reaction, while it may seem strange to anyone who has not been intimately involved in a situation like this, was common among the HIV-negatives with whom Odets dealt daily in his practice as a psychotherapist.
Brodkey, during the frequent bleak periods that dogged him as the disease progressed, at times contemplated suicide. During these dark moments, Ellen unfailingly said that if he chose that option, she, too, wanted to kill herself, to die with Harold, to die like Harold.
Ellen would, in every sense, be categorized as the caregiver type of person. As Brodkey reveals her, she is the sort who constantly serves other people. His illness offered her...
(The entire section is 1932 words.)